International Housing Conference – October 2008

Speaker: Lynne Brown

13 October 2008

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MEC Whitey Jacobs,
Mr Itumeleng Kotsoane, the Director-General in the National Department of Housings,
Mr Felicio Zacarias, Minister of Housing and Public Works of the Republic of Mozambique,
Mr Zefanias Chitsungo, National Director of Housing and Urbanization of Mozambique,
Mr Howard Farrand, Vice-President of the Chartered Institute of Housing – United Kingdom,
Mr Pak Lung Chiu, Chartered Institute of Housing – Asian Pacific – Hong Kong, China.
Delegations from Botswana, France, Germany the United Kingdom, Hong Kong, Kenya, Lesotho, Mozambique, Namibia, Nigeria, Swaziland, Uganda, the United States of America, Zambia and Zimbabwe
Southern African Housing Foundation CEO John Hopkins,
Honoured guests,
Ladies and gentlemen,

IT IS with great pleasure and with a deep sense of anticipation that I welcome you to Cape Town this morning.

I am convinced that over the next three days you will make significant progress towards plotting a course that will ultimately resolve one of the most vexing challenges of our time – the urgent need to provide countless numbers of people in developing countries, such as South Africa, with an opportunity to utter just one … priceless … sentence: “At last, I have a house that I am proud to call my home.”

What I am suggesting is a daunting challenge.

In the Western Cape alone, we have a housing backlog of almost 400,000 units. And this number climbs with every passing month.

But we –all the arms of government, the private sector, housing experts, the academic world and ordinary men and women – must join hands and work even harder than we have been doing up to now to whittle down this backlog.

We dare not fail.

Ladies and gentlemen, I have lived in a township. I can identify with mothers who have dreamed for five, 10, 15 years of owning their own house, instead of sharing a tiny two-bedroomer with a brother or sister.

I can identify with teenagers who dream of having their own room – or even a room to share with just a brother or sister or two … rather than with three cousins as well.

I can identify with parents who dream of growing prize dahlias in their own patch of garden, in front of their own house.

And I can identify with young families who desperately cling to the hope that, perhaps, tomorrow they will be able to move from their backyard structure – to a house of their own.

The possibility of owning a home sits at the heart of the existence of tens of thousands of residents of the Western Cape.

Someone once said: “Where you live matters.”

And it is true: Location shapes the destiny of people. No one will argue that a child growing up in upper-class Rondebosch, middle-class Mowbray or even working-class Southfield is infinitely more likely to become a doctor, an engineer or even a diesel motor mechanic than a child growing up in an informal settlement in Khayelitsha.

To put it bluntly, unless you are blessed with an incredible amount of perseverance, if you grow up in abject poverty, you’re stuffed.

This is why I believe it is so important for us to break the chains of poverty that are strangling so many thousand members of our communities.

And this is why I believe that the key to a better life is a proper house….

Ladies and gentlemen, among the poorest of the poor, the acquisition of a house promotes self-esteem. It fills homeowners with the confidence to assert their rights as South Africans. And it is the catalyst that turns hope that tomorrow will indeed by better than yesterday into certainty.

I know that authorities, generally, are often accused of dragging their feet over matters such as the provision of housing. And I would be the first to admit that there have been times when the government I head could have – and, indeed, should have – responded to certain situations with greater speed.

But, in mitigation, I would argue that the provision of housing in this province and this country is an enormously complex subject.

And we are not alone in thinking this way.

I am sure that the many housing experts who are gathered here today will agree with me when I say that governments across the globe have not found it easy to tackle the problem of homelessness and grossly inadequate housing.

As I mentioned at the beginning of this address, the makings of a solution lie in the establishment of partnerships between governments, the private sector, the academic sector and the ordinary man and women in the street.

Time, though, is off the essence.

Ladies and gentlemen, Article 25, Section 1, of the United Nations’ Universal Declaration of Human Rights states that everyone “has the right to a standard of living adequate for the health and wellbeing of himself and of his family, including food, clothing, housing and medical care and necessary social services, and the right to security in the even of unemployment, sickness, disability, widowhood, old age or other lack of livelihood in circumstances beyond his control”.

Clause 9 of the Freedom Charter of the African National Congress says: “There shall be houses, security and comfort. It promises decent housing for all and the rationalization of accommodation, the demolition of slums and fenced townships, the provision of proper suburban amenities, proper medical care for all, as well as care of the aged, the disabled and orphans.

Progress has been slow, but we dare not abandon the commitments we made to our people long before we defeated apartheid.

There are challenges, of course.

Earlier in this address, I spoke to you about the shortage of houses in predominantly coloured townships, a shortage that is manifested by the increasing numbers of backyard structures in already overcrowded dwellings.

There is another, parallel arm to this shortage.

During your journey from Cape Town International Airport to the centre of the city, all of you would have seen a rumble-tumble expanse of plastic-and-corrugated structures that stretch as far as the eye can see.

These, ladies and gentlemen, are the homes of tens of thousands of desperately poor people.

South Africans refer to these areas as informal settlements. Many of you present here today will refer to them as slums.

But it doesn’t matter what you call them. Whether you have seen them on the outskirts of Nairobi in Kenya or Manila in the Philippines … in Cape Town, South Africa or Rio de Janeiro, Brazil … or in Lagos, Nigeria or Kingston, Jamaica, conditions are essentially the same – dire.

Life for the majority of residents of these settlements is a day-in-day-out, year-after-year battle for survival.

Having set the scene for you, I would like to stress that those who are responsible for the provision of housing in the Western Cape are working exceedingly hard to reduce the backlog – and to make life just a little more comfortable for those who are forced to live in less than comfortable circumstances.

And yet, in many ways, this province has become, well, almost a victim of its own successes.

Let me explain: in 2007, the United Nations agency, UN-HABITAT reported that annual “slum” growth had fallen markedly in South Africa (by 0.2 percent), Mexico (0.5 percent), Egypt (1.6 percent) and Tunisia (5.4 percent).

This was great news for us. But let me add: This type of praise also has implications….

In the ranks of the desperately poor, good news (especially when it is related to housing) travels at lightning speed.

In its report, UN-HABITAT said: “Long term commitment counts.” And it gave as an example the Brazilian city of Rio de Janeiro, which it said had invested more than $600-million in its “Programa Favela Bairro” – to improve access to basic infrastructure, health and education for half-a-million of its poor.

I agree with the route Rio opted for – and let me add: Like our Brazilian counterparts, we’re here for the long haul.

So let me tell you about some of our recent achievements:

A programme that our provincial Housing Department launched to upgrade informal settlements three years ago, has benefited 45,000 households.

What, you may ask, were these benefits?

To most people, the provision of electricity, adequate sanitation and water taps is taken for granted. In an informal settlement, such interventions are life-changing.

Firstly, electricity offers children the opportunity to study at night. Extra study time means better results. Better results mean the possibility of a tertiary education. A tertiary education means a better job. A better job means maybe, just maybe, the breaking of the terrible spiral of poverty

The second point that is worth emphasizing is that adequate sanitation and running water are key weapons in the fight to reduce diseases, which under more normal circumstances would be easily preventable.

Ladies and gentlemen, the government of this province makes no apologies for the fact that it promotes staunchly pro-poor policies. And in this respect, I am pleased to be able to tell you that we have built more than 23,000 houses and serviced almost 50,000 sites in 27 of the poorest areas over the past three years or so.

Over the past four years we have built more than 60,000 homes, which have benefited more than 210,000 people.

Now, some people might argue that we are going to have to do a lot better than 15,000 houses a year to make a dent in the housing backlog.

I agree. But I also believe that if, with every house that we build, we are able to change the lives of just family at a time, our efforts would be well worth while.

I spoke earlier about being casualties of our own successes. Despite what many people would describe as a slow pace of housing delivery, we continue to attract thousands of people to our province, in search of a better life.

Many of the new arrivals disembark in the Western Cape with a minimum of possessions, without work, without skills – and without housing.

And still we will still do everything we can to assimilate them into our economy and our communities.

In saying this, I am fully aware that we have been required to perform a fine balancing act. We have been criticized for not doing enough for those who have been on housing waiting lists for a long time.

But I want to stress that we are fully aware of the needs of the people who refer to themselves as backyarders, as well as those who have been living in informal settlements for a long time.

And we are determined to provide them with facilities that will improve their lives – even if we are unable to build houses for them immediately, or in sufficient numbers.

I can’t stress enough how important it is for these informal settlements to be transformed. I am a great supporter of holistic interventions to improve the lives of people.

And this why I am so glad that so many different aspects of housing, ranging from “alternative building technologies” to “alternative shelter delivery through community involvement”, and from “building green with masonry” to the “state of electricity in South Africa (should electrification be discontinued or not?), will be discussed at this conference.

If we are to build adequate housing for our communities, we will need new ideas. We will have to be innovative.

If I could make a wishlist of changes that I would like to see (in addition to a massive increase in the number of houses being built for the poor), I would include ways to prevent the number of fires caused by paraffin stoves and the floods that become so prevalent in Western Cape winters.

It is imperative that we find ways to halt the terrible suffering caused by fires and floods.

I would also like to see roads and those elements of our transport system that serve the poorest areas being improved.

Our provincial government is committed to doing precisely that.

Ladies and gentlemen, to me (and I am sure to you) a house will only become a home when we are able to provide the people in our communities with proper facilities. And these could range from decent roads, to proper street lighting and from green areas to safe recreational areas.

We are determined to offer those who are presently living in squalor hope. But, in saying this, there is a reality that you and I are well aware of….

Hope in itself must only be a start … a gateway to our real mission – of building a new, all-inclusive South Africa.

There is one thing I’m certain of, which must be guarded against: if hope stays hope, it will be like a mirage … something far in the distance – and unattainable.

As the government of this province, we know that we still have a lot of hard work to do. We know that we still have to throw all our efforts and all the commitment that we can muster into convincing those who live here of the need for a unity of purpose and thereafter to help steer them into an era where hope is prodded into taking a giant leap towards the reality of a better life for all.

Ladies and gentlemen, as you prepare for your discussions, I thought I would throw something extra into the pot…..

Again, it is information that I have gleaned from the 2006/07 UN-HABITAT report on the State of the World’s Cities.

It tells me a number of interesting, and possibly, frightening things….

  1. By 2030 there will be 5 billion people living in cities
  2. Cities of the developing world will account for 95 percent of urban expansion in the next two decades and by 2030 will be home to 80 percent of the world’s urban population (which translates into 4 billion people).
  3. Sub-Saharan Africa has the world’s highest annual urban growth rate (4.58 percent) and highest slum growth rate (4.53 percent).
  4. More than half the world’s urban population will be living in Asia (2.66-billion)
  5. More Africans will be living in cities than the total population of Europe (748-million)
  6. There will be more and more Metacities with populations of more than 20 million especially in Asia, Latin America and Africa.
  7. The fastest urban growth, spurred by migration from the countryside, will occur in small cities and towns of less than 1 million inhabitants.

Ladies and gentlemen, honoured guests, delegates, let me once again wish you well – and let me invite you to enjoy our hospitality and the scenic beauty of our province.

I trust that your deliberations will go a long way towards to providing answers to our most troubling housing dilemmas – and that they will certainly emphasize the observation that I recently read: People who are homeless or who live in shelters made out pieces of wood and plastic sheets are not social inadequates. They are simply people without proper homes.

Thank you very much.


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